When it comes to cell phones, Chris and I have chosen what I think of as the naughty-Amish approach: We do own them, but they are humble devices to be used only when necessary (the definition of which is obviously open to interpretation, as I can’t remember the last time I made a Walmart run without an urgent call from Kate to request an emergency refill of Cheez-Its). Chris and I have cheap smartphones; the girls inherited our old flip phones (which Kate refuses to carry because it’s “too embarrassing”), and we buy enough prepaid minutes that no one is left incommunicado out among the English. The upside: We spend less than $100 a year, and if I call or text you on my cell phone, you know that I like you enough to spend 30 cents. The downside is that I pay anytime a sleezebag texts me spam or someone misdials and calls my number. (Also, my kids think we are unbearably lame, but that was bound to happen.)
Recently Chris’ friend gave us his old smartphone when he upgraded, and I finally gathered the strength to visit the T-Mobile store to get a SIM card. As soon as I walked in, a representative I’ll call Craig (because he reminded me of Billy Eichner’s character on Parks and Recreation) greeted me and asked how he could help. I explained that I needed a SIM card for a phone we’d been given and then tried to politely convey that we were a family of prepaid-minute-loving rubes and it would be fruitless for him to try to sell me any kind of plan. He was nice enough and told me that when we were ready to step up to $120 a month for the best plan in the business, he’d set me up. Then he proceeded to punch in the thousands of numbers it evidently takes to activate a cell phone with $10 worth of minutes, all the while chatting about how he had bought several of these same phones and set up a WiFi hotspot and a bunch of other stuff I didn’t understand. I nodded and smiled, wondering how much of customers’ $120 a month went toward keeping the store’s thermostat set at I’m guessing 85 degrees.
While I waited, Craig talked about how he often serves customers who bought Family Mobile plans at Walmart (which, he explained, pays to use the T-Mobile brand) and were misinformed by the salespeople there. Then he told me about the time he saw a Family Mobile representative wearing a genuine T-Mobile shirt and asked him if he worked for T-Mobile. He said yes, so Craig asked for his store code. The imposter revealed the code — and, unwittingly, his filthy lie: Craig informed him that he was several digits off and obviously not a real T-Mobile employee. Which meant he definitely should not have been wearing that shirt. I was surprised, not having realized that working in a T-Mobile store was such a lofty calling and the uniforms were sacred garments.
Finally it was time to pay, and after I swiped my credit card, Craig asked to see my driver’s license and scanned it. Curious, I asked why he needed to verify my ID for the phone (thinking it was some kind of government tracking strategy like the one that keeps tabs on my Sudafed purchases), and he said it was because my credit card didn’t have my picture on it and I hadn’t signed it. “Oh, I guess I should sign that,” I said, feeling even more doltish than usual. “It’s my job to be really observant,” Craig said, completing my transaction and then highlighting the wrong printout. He soon recognized and rectified his mistake, handed me my paperwork and wished me well.
As soon as I got in my horse-drawn buggy (OK, it’s a minivan — shun me), I pulled out the newly activated phone and attempted to call my old cell phone. Twice a recording informed me that I wasn’t allowed to call that number. I reviewed my receipt and saw that it said I had purchased zero minutes.
To his credit, Craig met me at the door and asked what had gone wrong. When I explained, he confessed that this kind of thing happened all the time. I almost reassured him that I knew that from experience because every time I have activated a phone with T-Mobile it has been a MESS, but I didn’t want to be rude — or to spend one more second than I had to in that sauna of a store. A few hundred keystrokes later, Craig had applied the $10 worth of minutes I paid for earlier to my account like a BOSS. When I later looked at the back of my credit card and saw that it was indeed signed, I could only assume his misobservation was a hallucination produced by a combination of the heat and the intense pressure of his cutthroat work environment. I hope the shirt is worth it.